Amy Webb (@amywebb)
is the author of The
Big Nine: How theTech
Machines Could Warp
Humanity. She is the
founder of the Future
Today Institute and a
professor of strategic
foresight at the NYU Stern
School of Business.
AMY WEBB ; LEADING EDGE
Don’t Worry—a Human Wrote This
A wave of synthetic media—and synthetic
social media–based characters—is here.
n August 2008, Kim Kardashian cut her foot
on a shard of glass and a then-newish celebrity
gossip website, TMZ.com, sent out alerts to
millions of people. As it happened, I was sitting
with several executives, who collectively
eye-rolled and argued that the famous-for-being-famous set have a short shelf life.
Say what you will about Kim Kardashian—
at least she’s a human. The next generation of
the famous-for-being-famous are being engineered from
scratch. They’re synthetic stars—algorithmically generated
characters who have millions of Instagram followers, show
up in glossy magazines, and have songs on Spotify. Like Lil
Miquela, who’s sort of the synthetic Beyoncé, thanks to her
1. 6 million Instagram followers. She models for the likes of
Prada and Calvin Klein, her first single came out last year,
and she has sponsorship deals with companies like Samsung.
Among her pals: Bermuda, a rule-breaking bad girl who models
and touts brands, and Blawko, an L.A.-based Gen Z-er who
likes fast cars and Absolut vodka, and who is never seen without his trademark scarf covering his nose and mouth.
Synthetic stars aren’t entirely new. Virtual Japanese pop star
Hatsune Miku debuted in 2007—though actual people wrote
her songs—and still does stadium tours around the world. (In
English, her name translates roughly to “first sound of the
future.”) But they’re becoming a big business. Brud, the company behind Lil Miquela, is valued at $125 million. Companies
like Superplastic, Toonstar, and Shadows are developing virtual
characters, and this year the incubator and investor Betaworks
launched Synthetic Camp, an accelerator program designed to
nurture and invest in such companies.
Synthetic stars are an antidote to egotistical and misbehaving celebs. They’re ideal employees: They don’t show up late.
They don’t follow trendy diets requiring costly, hard-to-find
foods. They never get tired. They don’t get crazy on alcohol or
drugs. They’re never o;-message, and their mug shots don’t
go viral on the internet. (Though, this summer, Bermuda posted
her own mug shot on Instagram, to “get ahead” of the press.)
There are many other implications: Rather than having
Emily Blunt spend hours voicing a character in an animated
film, one could license her voice, and then program a system
to mimic it. Synthetically voiced ads could be modified with
regional accents. A public service announcement about
malaria was produced this year by A.I. video synthesis company Synthesia and ad agency R/GA; in it, David Beckham
discusses how to fight malaria in nine languages, thanks to
synthetic voice technology. And imagine di;erent synthetic
characters appearing in hundreds of ads, each targeting
narrow demographic bases: trendsetting moms in Southern
California, stay-at-home dads in Chicago, aspirational Gen
Z-ers from Atlanta who are entering college.
There are risks, of course. Like all cutting-edge tech, from
gene editing to A.I.-enabled hiring, the law hasn’t kept pace
with innovation. I know of no law or regulation anywhere that
governs synthetic content, although some observers have recommended adapting current laws that cover libel, defamation,
identity fraud, and impersonating a government o;cial.
Meanwhile, last spring criminals used synthetic voice technology to impersonate a CEO and trick a manager into transferring $243,000 into their bank account. Synthetic versions
of Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly gone viral.
And what happens when humanlike avatars, trained on our
personal data, start selling us things? What if someone generates a synth of one of your employees—or of you?
Some companies are working on such concerns. Synthesia
co-founder Matthias Niessner created a system to detect, say,
fake Pelosi videos called FaceForensics++. His team is developing other tools to identify synthetic content. All of which is
great—but he had better work fast. If scores of ersatz Kim
Kardashians are created, TMZ will never be able to keep up.
a We i